At the Ambassador Theatre in New York on June 15, Nobel Prize–winning novelist and longtime editor Toni Morrison joined National Book Award winner and The Atlantic correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates and Robert Frost Medal winner Sonia Sanchez in a conversation called "Art and Social Justice," hosted by the Stella Adler Studio of Acting. During the two-hour conversation—which concluded with the presentation of the Studio's Marlon Brando Award to each of the participants—the three writers discussed writing and race in America. In this transcribed segment of the discussion, Morrison recounted stories of racial tension during her time in book publishing, when she was an editor at Random House and, simultaneously, a writer being published by Knopf.
Sonia Sanchez: Do you think editors are curators of culture?
Toni Morrison: Well, they can be. If you take that work seriously. Some of it’s just profit, and we know the editors and the houses where some of them do that. And then there are places and there are editors whom I know, and even houses in which something else is important, which is something that if they think the culture needs to be fed, there’s a kind of work—and it’s very, very different. It’s interesting—when I was listening to Ta-Nehisi talk about reparations—the very first book I published at Random House was [The Case for] Black Reparations by Boris Bittker. I published that book! And then, they were all very individualistic enterprises to me. I was mostly interested in literature and novels, things like that. But at the same time I didn’t know much—and I have to tell you this one little story which will sum up, I suppose, the good things and the not so hot things in publishing.
I remember sitting at a sales conference where they discussed the books that the editors are offering, and the salesmen’s response about what they thought they could do. Random House was interesting in editing because each editor did his or her own thing and then went to the head guy for money. You pulled your own weight as far as selecting books. It wasn’t a committee decision, it was an individual decision.
So, this man, salesman, said to me, about some book I published, which was—I don’t know if this was Gayl Jones or something like that, a black woman writer whom I thought was fantastic, you know, she wrote Generations [NOTE: Jones's novel was called Corregidora, about a blues singer forced into having children, or “making generations,” and instructing them to remember her family’s history in slavery] and I was just blown away. But the salesman said, “You understand, don’t you, that we can’t sell this book on the same side of the street,” by which he meant, it’s a book about African-Americans and they will buy it—or not—but we can’t sell it to the regular bookstores, which cater principally to white purchasers.
And so I felt funny about that, and I thought—something you said earlier Sonia, about being pulled off the stage if you aren’t any good? And I thought that this was important. Suppose I published a book that was “good enough” for black people—one that would not be pulled off the stage. One in which the criteria was higher than what the salesman was talking about. So I thought, it would have to be really, really good. It would have to be popular. It would have to be correct. It would have to be new. It would have to just encompass everything that I thought would interest African-Americans—good stuff, bad stuff, great stuff, whatever, all together. And I called it The Black Book.
The Black Book had a manuscript, because it was documents, articles in newspapers, other peoples’ writings, reproductions of things African-Americans had invented. We had photographs from almost everywhere—dream books and cooking things, the whole potpourri of what black life was and had produced. It was very beautiful, by the way, I don’t know if any of you have seen it. It was gorgeous. And at one point one of the editors came in to me and said, “The boss”—whoever it was at the time; she didn’t say “boss,” she called his name—“would like to talk to you about this book you’re doing. We don’t know what it’s like, and we would like to know.” And I said, “Oh, it’s gonna be fine!” And she said, “Yeah, but, you know, you work here.” And I said, “But I don’t have to.” [Smiles.] So she left.
The second thing: The publicist came to me because I had arranged to have a book party. And where would I have a book party? Uptown. And I rented Smalls or whatever, one of two or three very well-known uptown restaurants. And they said, “Yes, of course, just don’t mess with the bar, because I have patrons who come here. The rest of the place you can have.” So I have this wonderful site for this fantastic publication of this book. And the publicist comes to me and says, once she finds out the location of the party, “Don’t you think we should take some police with us?” And I said, “You want to bring some cops up to Harlem? What is that!?”
Anyway, I didn’t talk to her anymore, and we went. We went, we had a wonderful time. The ‘New York Times’ came and took pictures of Melvin Van Peebles and me and everybody dancing and it was a huge and immediate bestseller. And I didn’t wanna know, even at that time, except a friend, one of the other editors said—which I didn’t even notice!—that the chief guy, the head guy, had warned every other editor not to come to that party. He said, “Don’t go.” So they didn’t go. I went, the publicist went, we had a great time. We were in the front page, I mean, not the front page, the huge main arts page in the ‘New York Times.’ The book shot off the shelves. And I heard one of those same salesmen who could not sell the book on both sides of the street say, “I think we have a tiger by the tail.” Yes. You. Do. [Laughs.]
It went in, I think twelve editions. And I sent it—I don’t know if I sent it, or if it was sent—to a man, a black man in prison. And he wrote a letter and asked for two more copies of the book. He said, “I have one copy, which I want to hold against my heart. But I need another copy to throw up against the wall. And I need another copy after that to give to a friend.”
All those emotions were in that book. The horrible stuff that happened, the lynchings, I mean all of it—and the letters people wrote. Anyway, I don’t need to tell you all of the details, but I did want to suggest to you that part of the business of editing is telling people to shut up.
But on the other hand, I felt really energized, and happy that I was able to receive and edit these extraordinary writers. I mean, they were really beyond anything that one could imagine. No, it was not, you know, Ralph Ellison, but it was Tony Cade Bambara. No, it wasn’t even James Baldwin—although I did chat with him a little bit about the book, but he had another arrangement with another editor.
I edited Muhammad Ali’s first book! Called, “The Greatest.” And that was a long time ago. Aw, man.
Oh, and one last thing about that. When I first began to be an editor, I was in the school department. [NOTE: Morrison began her career at a textbook publisher in Syracyse, N.Y., before joining Random House as a trade editor] Then I published, with another company, The Bluest Eye. And I didn’t tell anybody at Random House that I had published this book, that I had written it. Because I thought, well, you know, they’d get all, “An editor who writes? What’s that?” So I kept it sort of secret, or I thought it was. I don’t know why. Everyone in editing knows everything.
So the president came down once and said he knew about this book I had published. And he said, “I would like for you to stay as an editor at Random House, but I want you to talk to Knopf. Because they could publish you, and you could stay in this company.” Random House owns Knopf. So I only had to go talk to the editor in chief of Knopf to see if he was willing to edit me—they’d keep me as an editor at Random, but would the other part of the company be willing? They didn’t just tell people what to do. So I went to talk to him, and he said, “I don’t want to be your boss. But I very much want to be your editor.”
So I began to do this really, now that I think about it, strange thing. Which was to edit books for Random House and to publish and write books for the other part of the company, which was Knopf. They’ve all blended in since then, but at the time, they were very distinct companies, even though they were owned by the same people. I think Doctorow had something like that, because he was an editor, and then he became a writer—a fabulous writer, actually. But it’s an unusual situation, probably because most editors don’t want to write, and most writers probably don’t want to edit. But look! Hey! [Waves her hands at herself.]
For more on race and publishing, see PW's March article "Why Publishing Is So White."